The Nehmeh Group: How History Shapes the Future
Alexander Nehme did not intend to write a book when he set out to capture his family’s history and values through the entrepreneurial journey of his father. However, it soon became apparent that putting his family’s legacy into print was more than just an act of preservation.
Interview with Alexander A. Nehme
Alexander A. Nehme did not intend to write a book when he set out to capture his family’s history and values through the entrepreneurial journey of his father, Antoine Nehme, founder of the Nehmeh Group. However, it soon became apparent that putting his family’s legacy into print was more than just an act of preservation; it was a way to influence the organisation’s future by inspiring family and non-family leaders of today.
A business development professional, Alexander A. Nehme is a Partner and Board Member at his family’s Qatar-based industrial trading and manufacturing solutions enterprise, Nehmeh. Since 1955, Nehmeh has grown and expanded with operations across Qatar and the region. Today, the company operates automotive, construction, heat transfer, woodworking, rental, and service solutions segments across the Middle East. After his father, Antoine, passed in 2010, Alexander sought to chronicle his family’s extraordinary journey for future generations – an effort that culminated in the book Blessings in the Sand: The Antoine Nehme Legacy.
Q: How did your journey capturing your family business history begin?
It began simply with notes of my father’s sayings and quotations. A favourite of mine always was, “No watchman over my work if my conscious is my watchman.” That quote underscored the importance of working ethically even when nobody else is looking, that is keeping and delivering on our promises.
This sketchbook was a good foundation for our legacy project, but it was also necessary to establish a real sense of purpose. I felt that sharing the stories and motivational quotes of those who have inspired us was the most direct way of upholding our timeless values.
As with people, businesses change, but their fundamentals and principles — what defines them — remain the same.
I had hoped to document the story in a way that would both inform and inspire, but at that time, I had no idea what form it would take or the extent of my involvement. Understanding that there is no right or wrong way to go about such an endeavour was critical in the initial stages. The most important part is the commitment to doing it, luckily we are stubborn by nature.
Q: How were you able to archive all the information necessary to write the book?
Compiling as much as possible from the past is essential to the process, but it can also be challenging, especially in a region like the MENA, where there is less time spent writing or reading compared to other regions. Instead, we are oral storytellers, and we must try to preserve this oral history — the narratives passed from generation to generation. It’s difficult work but certainly possible.
Practical questions needed answers, too: What language should it be written in? What tone will suit it best? And how deep will we go?
As a private person from a family that values privacy and confidentiality, we needed to agree on the level of disclosure we were all comfortable with. That said, we must acknowledge that we live in the age of information, and there is far more in the public domain than many realise. In the end, the entire process took about 18 months. The result, Blessings in the Sand: The Antoine Nehme Legacy, presents a historical account of our founder’s story of passion and dedication and the entrepreneurial legacy that continues.
Q: What are some of the key points you’d like others to take away from reading the book?
The ability to apply one’s principles across a variety of contexts is essential. Families have their own rules — their own character. Those values and principles must be passed from one generation to the next, acted upon and not lost in time. The heart and soul of the business must be secured for future generations.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that the written word outlives human lives. I encourage families to, as soon as possible, record in writing the wisdom shared both personally and professionally by all its members. And don’t be bound to any specific outcome at first — just start the process.
Q: How can a better understanding of a family or company’s history impact the strength of its leadership?
It’s all about the continuation of a journey; the travellers will change, but the journey and its trajectory must endure.
If leaders don’t know the roots of the business, how can they take it to where it needs to go next?
The context of history can be even more helpful for those in leadership roles who are not directly part of the founding family. The non-family leaders in our organisation have benefitted greatly from knowing our founder’s history, principles and passion. It can be very powerful to present them with something tangible, like a book, where they can draw inspiration, learn from various anecdotes on resolving challenges, and consult our core values.
Q: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing your family’s story?
I was struck by how to many nostalgia of the past was comforting in contrast to the uncertainty of the future. Universally, the past seems to represent stability, simplicity, achievement and growth. Even if business leaders back then may have been under significant pressure or felt negative, with time, the results became a net positive.
That said, it’s crucial when undertaking this kind of project to avoid labelling the past as the “glory days” of an organisation. Instead, I wanted to leverage our family history to help us embrace the future. That meant bringing an evolutionary eye to the past and focussing on the significance and sustainability of continuous transformation.
Q: How do you see the book and the family history it contains shaping the future of the business?
We use our book as a tool — providing it to anyone who joins our organisation so that they understand how we’ve arrived where we are, where we’re headed and the values that will get us there. The book is also available in our company library for anyone who requests it. When someone joins our organisation, they are also joining our family. But for that to be truly effective, there must be transparency and ease of access to the resources we have, as well. It can be a delicate balancing act between transparency, discretion, and confidentiality, but we believe it’s the approach that garners the best results.
Q: What would you say to family businesses in the early stages of preserving their history?
Talk, record and document. It’s important to write down the conversations you have because you can’t have them again once people are gone. Look for opportunities to gather older relatives together, such as weddings or other family occasions. Be prepared to ask questions and pay close attention to the answers no matter how serious or minor they may sound; remember you are trying to capture a by-gone era of places, events and people.
The goal is to gather the overall learning and wisdom of those who helped shape the history that you are trying to preserve.
What’s ultimately used is up to you, but collecting as much insight as you can, while you can, is crucial. Recognize that life is short so don’t wait; the archival process should begin right away and it can be done.
Publication Date: 31-January-2023
Alexander A. Nehme, Partner & Board Member, Nehmeh
Alexander Nehme is a 2nd generation director and partner at Nehmeh, a multifaceted family business group serving the Gulf region. As an IFC-certified board member, he also serves as board member for various other organizations and corporations. A creative business development professional, Alexander has set up several entrepreneurial and impact ventures, among which arab.org, the largest community for good in the Arab World and a recognized reference for MENA civil society. He believes that corporate social responsibility and community service of purpose are an integral part of any corporation, whether family-owned or not.